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Trauma Center Vote Is Likely

Majority of L.A. County supervisors are inclined to pursue plans to close unit at King/Drew hospital, despite calls by Burke to delay action.

September 20, 2004|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

A majority of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appears inclined to proceed with the controversial closure of the trauma unit at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, despite Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke's proposal to postpone the vote.

Spokespersons for Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Gloria Molina said Sunday that their bosses plan to stand by the board's informal decision last Monday to close the unit -- the county's second-busiest -- in about 90 days. A vote to begin the process of closure is set for Tuesday.

Supervisor Don Knabe said he is leaning toward shutting down the trauma unit unless federal regulators give the county more time to make other reforms.

A spokesman for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky released a statement saying that the supervisor "respects Mrs. Burke and understands her position, but in this matter he's going to be guided by the body of expert medical opinion," including the chief of the county Department of Health Services. Yaroslavsky's spokesman, Joel Bellman, declined to comment further.

Health department director Dr. Thomas Garthwaite initiated the proposal for closure, saying that resources for the labor-intensive trauma unit were needed to shore up the rest of the troubled Willowbrook hospital, which is owned by the county.

The trauma unit treats injuries from violent incidents such as shootings and car accidents. The emergency room, which treats injuries as varied as broken bones and chest pains, would remain open under the proposal.

If supervisors on Tuesday support the trauma center's closure, they still must schedule a public hearing before the plan can be finalized.

At a news conference last Monday, Garthwaite's proposal won the unanimous support of all five supervisors. Since then, it has generated considerable political heat, especially in the largely minority and impoverished community served by the hospital.

Doctors at King/Drew and elsewhere have said it would mean longer travel times -- and in some cases, death -- for critically injured patients. Community leaders around South Los Angeles fear the unit's closure would lead to a shutdown of the entire hospital, which was built in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots and carries considerable symbolic significance.

After four days of outcry from the community, Burke, who represents the district in which King/Drew is located, filed a motion on Friday asking the board to postpone a formal vote. Instead, she urged her colleagues to wait for hospital consultants, who have yet to be hired, to make recommendations on reforms.

Burke's spokeswoman, Glenda Wina, on Saturday cited the community outcry as a factor in Burke's change of heart. On Sunday, she emphasized that the primary factor was the concerns of other hospitals that they would not be able to accommodate extra patients should King/Drew's unit be closed. The trauma unit serves more than 2,000 patients a year.

Other hospitals have "indicated that they don't think they can do it," Wina said. "Where are those people going to go?"

She said Burke had not yet spoken to the other supervisors about her proposal, and would touch base with all of them today to "fully explain her reasons."

Meanwhile, Molina spokeswoman Roxane Marquez said the supervisor plans to "move forward as planned," and supporting Burke's proposal is "not a possibility."

"We think the original decision was the right one," she said. "It's a matter of saving the hospital."

Tony Bell, a spokesman for Antonovich, said the supervisor "is still committed to the reform package. There has been too much loss of life and poor medical care. This is long since overdue. It's really just one step in the long march toward recovery for the facility."

Knabe said he knows that Burke is "under intense pressure from the community," and that he would consider postponing the vote to close the center if federal regulators gave the county more time to improve King/Drew services. Without that, "we need to move on to try to save the hospital and keep it open," he said. "We're under pressure from the regulators."

In the last year, state and federal inspectors have cited King/Drew numerous times for lapses in medical care that have harmed and, in at least five cases, contributed to the deaths of patients.

On Wednesday, a national accrediting group announced a proposal to remove its seal of approval from King/Drew, an unusual move that was a tremendous public relations blow to the hospital and one that could jeopardize teaching programs and private insurance contracts.

The threat came in the same week that a federal demand for outside management of the hospital was announced. County health officials have been running King/Drew for nearly a year.

The drama surrounding King/Drew is expected to intensify this week. Today, state Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton) will hold what he called an urgent meeting at the hospital to discuss the trauma center proposal. Dymally has called the unit at King/Drew "the most important and effective trauma unit in California."

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Times staff writer Charles Ornstein contributed to this report.

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